Refresh your email manners

Hey, it’s pretty remarkable we have email etiquette at all. This medium has only been widely used for 15 years or so, and many of us weren’t given any formal instruction. With that in mind, let’s refresh our manners.

(I’m skipping the obvious ones like use spell check, avoid !!!!???? and frequent :) ;) :(, and let’s not forget that while neon green is your fave color, I can’t read pages of it.)


Use the subject line.

  • “Project X” as a subject doesn’t mean much to me, or anyone else. If I’m juggling other tasks, I won’t stop what I’m doing and open it. Try something along these lines instead: “Need input on Project X by 4pm” or “FYI – Update on Project X.”
  • We have a client that developed company-wide subject codes: IO (Information Only) and AR (Action Required). A subject might be, “IO – Proposal Progress Report.” Something to think about.
  • Instead of “RE: re: re: re: re: re: re: re: re: re: re: re: Office Holiday Party,” consider updating the subject line. After so many iterations, often the content has changed, so go in and change the title.

Bring the main point up front.

  • If you’re writing to ask for more budget, begin by stating that your email is regarding your need for additional budget. Then go in to the necessary back info. We often feel like we need to make a case before making the ask, but guess what? If you don’t hit that point up front, it may not be read at all. Many of us read emails on our smart phones and won’t scroll far enough down.
  • If it’s a lengthy email, do an executive summary at the top, and then go in to the detail below. Start off with the point of the email, the action that needs to be taken, and the benefit to the reader if that action is taken.

Mind the reply-all.

  • You’ve heard it, but somehow this tool is continuously abused.
  • Does every single person on this chain still need to be, after several iterations? Perhaps just two of you have participated in the conversation, and it’s no longer relevant to others. If so, yank everyone else off the To/CC: lines.
  • Was the email asking for one specific answer from you, like an RSVP? A reply solely to the author would be more appropriate (though I’m sure everyone’s thrilled you’re participating in White Elephant this year).

Use URGENT (and caps, for that matter) sparingly.

  • You may think that everything you do is incredibly urgent, but if you flag it all that way, it loses any zing. Use urgent flagging in your email client sparingly, if at all.
  • CAPS ARE TYPICALLY INTERPRETED AS YELLING. IT REMINDS ME OF AUSTIN POWERS NOT CONTROLLING THE VOLUME OF HIS VOICE. USE CAPS WITH ACRONYMS, BUT NOT ENTIRE SENTENCES.

Deadline? Be specific.

  • “Need your responses by end of day.” At least you’re putting a specific action step in your email, good job! But take it a step further and specify a time. EOD is different for most everyone — my end of day may be 6pm, but perhaps someone else’s is 11:59pm.

Look in your outbox and check out the last few emails you’ve sent. What tweaks can you make to be more effective by next week? What are some of your email etiquette pet peeves so we all can share what to avoid?

3 comments on “Refresh your email manners

  1. Great suggestions, Ben.

    Another one is to always be in your “Adult’ mode and state facts.

    Keep emotion, or anything that might be interpreted as emotion, out of emails as much as possible.
    those can be misinterpreted and start an “email battle.”

    If you think that’s a possibility – pick up the phone and call.

    Thanks for the Post!

  2. A great list. I particularly agree with marking things urgent only sparingly–using the “high importance” flag in Outlook is something my colleagues have gotten good at doing somewhat sparingly; thankfully I never got into the habit of using it much in the first place, and I’d like to think that means it has some punch the 1-2 times per quarter I put it on.

    I think in addition to abusing the “urgent” marker, people also neglect to mark things as unimport/unurgent (sort of like the “IO” code you mention). In Outlook, there’s a button–criminally underutilized, in my experience–to mark a message as “low importance.” I can probably count on my fingers all the times I’ve received a message thusly flagged. If I need to send something to a lengthy list to CMA, but nobody needs to act and there’s only a chance they’ll even need to know, the least I can do is flag it in a way that lets them know I need to know they’ve had a chance to see it but I don’t think it’s going to make much difference to them.